Rethinking euthanasia

Dartanyan Edmonds

Almost two years ago, Brittany Maynard, a young California woman suffering from brain cancer, made national headlines when she moved to Oregon to commit suicide with a doctor’s prescription.  Since Maynard’s suicide, California has legalized physician assisted-suicide, and the nation’s capital will most likely legalize it next month.  Before her death, Maynard became an advocate for legalizing voluntary euthanasia. Maynard made the argument that it was her right to terminate her own life.  

Assisted suicide advocates argued that since Maynard was suffering from a terminal illness and would die painfully, she should have been able to determine the means of her death.  By voluntarily ending it, they argued, she was giving herself the dignity to die free from the pain of her debilitating disease. 

This argument may pull at your heartstrings, but it would be wise to consider several things euthanasia advocates’ arguments routinely miss.  Not least among them is the inherent contradiction between the right to life and the right to suicide.  It follows logically that if you have an inalienable right to life, as Thomas Jefferson writes about in the Declaration of Independence, then you don’t have a right to commit suicide. The two rights simply don’t coincide because the right to life is inalienable, meaning that it can’t be taken away by anyone—including you

Of course, many would retort that America is the land of the free, so it should be up to individuals to make that intensely personal choice.  Liberty and individualism permeate the ethos of our country, so for many people voluntary euthanasia’s legalization just seems like the American way of doing things.  Arguments for the practice garner our sympathy for the terminally ill: if you’re going to die horribly, why can’t you end it on your terms? Why not end your pain if you so desire?  No one else knows what you’re going through so no one else can make that choice, so the argument goes.           

But let’s be consistent here. If we’re going to recognize the right to suicide for some people, then why not recognize it for everyone?  Why is it that the terminally ill have a right to suicide but no one else does?   Why not let your suicidal cousin who’s going through an awful divorce jump off a bridge?  Why have things like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the first place?  There’s no reason as to why someone who has a right to suicide in one tragic situation doesn’t have a right to suicide in other insufferable situations.  A woman who suffers from severe depression should have the same right to suicide that one with brain cancer does.  Otherwise, we would be arbitrarily recognizing rights to suicide for certain people and not for others.   

 Yet, as a society we aren’t prepared to recognize this right for everyone.  And we have good reason: suicide, while understandable in many situations, isn’t a viable answer to life’s troubles.  The truth is that pain and suffering are inevitable parts of life which will face every single one of us.  If we aren’t among the ranks of the suffering now, we will be.  So it doesn’t make sense that we can end it when we’re suffering tremendously or otherwise we should all have a right to suicide. 

But as I said earlier, there is no right to suicide because of our inherent right to life.  Every human life is intrinsically valuable.  You don’t need a religious background to appreciate this.  We recognize this fact every time we punish a murderer or attempt to deter a suicidal person from committing the act.  

Which brings me to another problem with euthanasia: doctors are supposed to be healers, but euthanasia transforms them into murderers.  The dignity of each human person forms the basis of doctors’ jobs.  Doctors are in the business of saving lives and alleviating pain wherever possible because of human dignity.  But making a doctor complicit in poisoning his patient to spare him pain violates his obligations.  

Such an act may seem compassionate because it ends suffering, but really it reduces a valuable human life to the worth of a dog.  Euthanasia advocates cloak their position with clothes of compassion, but we should beware. We should all have compassion for the dying and suffering to help ease their burdens but ending an innocent human life to end suffering isn’t compassionate.  It’s how we treat sick pets.  To kill a suffering dog is merciful, but to kill a suffering human is dehumanizing.  Euthanasia can’t give anyone dignity, but it does hold dignity in contempt.